by Harris Thor
Whether it’s for a coffee shop performance, live band gig, or a recording on a laptop, there may come a time when you need to amplify your acoustic string instrument. There is a wide choice of methods available and understanding the differences can help you make an informed choice when dealing with acoustic pickups.
The sound we associate with an acoustic stringed instrument originates at its bridge. Complex tension changes of the vibrating strings rock the saddle held in the bridge. This, in turn, generates vibrations in the larger top structure.
Contact pickups work with a variety of instruments, including those with nylon strings. They are easy to install on the top. Placement close to the bridge reproduces a more natural sound, but they will also hear any vibration of the top, such as hand thumps and sounds in the air. Options include two or more contacts for the underside of the bridge plate. More complex units that contain film sensors will require professional installation because the endpin needs to be replaced with a jack/preamp system. Feedback may occur from the amplifier or PA, but with practice, it can be controlled.
Soundhole magnetic pickups easily mount into the hole and are perhaps the quickest solution for steel string guitars. Sound is picked up only from the steel in the strings. For this reason, they will not work with nylon string instruments. They excel in terms of cost, ease of use, and feedback control, but because the sound is not heard from the endpoint of the string (bridge), they may not satisfy your need for a realistic acoustic tone.
Under saddle pickups offer fairly realistic sound because they detect string vibration at the saddle. Less of the top is heard, which helps control feedback. Under saddle pickups have been improving readily since the 1970s. They can include a preamp with controls mounted either in the soundhole or set into the side. Under saddle pickups are complex to install and may require a technician.
Hopefully, this guide will make the choices less mysterious when selecting a pickup. Don’t be afraid to ask questions at your local music store, and take advantage of the salesperson’s knowledge base as well.
Contact pickups can reproduce a natural tone when mounted to any flat soundboard such as on nylon string guitars, steel string guitars, dulcimers, mandolins, and similar stringed instruments. They offer easy peel-and-stick installation and will work without a preamp or battery.
L.R. Baggs iBeam Active Pickup System
Bridge plate pickups mount inside the guitar on the bridge plate with peel and stick adhesive. Advanced designs flex with the soundboard, reproducing a microphone-like response pattern that inhibits feedback and string squeak. Bridge plate pickups may require professional installation as the endpin may need to be replaced with a jack/preamp system.
Seymour Duncan Woody
Soundhole magnetic pickups come in a variety of colors and options, including single coil and hum-canceling designs. They are generally easy-to-install and remove, and can work well for singer-songwriters, strummers, or rock bands.
Fishman Ellipse Matrix Blend
Combination systems can take advantage of two or more methods by blending sound from an under saddle pickup, magnetic pickup, and microphone. They come in varying installation and control options. They are a good choice for professionals and should be installed by a luthier.